On May 11, 1879, Rev. John Newman had been in Rome for some weeks when he was called to the Vatican by Pope Leo XIII and was informed that he was to be made a cardinal. It was not a surprise, since then-Father Newman had already been unofficially told the previous year that this great honor would be bestowed on him. It was, however, an extraordinary event, since he was neither a bishop nor a resident of Rome. Moreover, he was a convert from the Church of England to the Catholic Faith, and a controversial one at that.
The next day, Father Newman made arrangements to use the apartments in the Palazzo della Pigna of his friend and fellow countryman Edward Henry Cardinal Howard to receive the official letter from the Holy Father — il Biglietto — announcing his promotion to cardinal. As word of this spread, English and American Catholics in Rome gathered with many prominent Romans at the palazzo to witness the historical event. Father Newman received the official Biglietto, broke the seal, and handed it to Cardinal Howard, who read it to Newman and those gathered in his honor.
Cardinal Newman’s brief comments afterward came to be known as the “Biglietto Speech,” a relatively brief statement in which he humbly expressed his gratitude to the Holy Father. But far from being merely the passing words of a grateful servant, his speech is remembered today primarily for what he regarded as the greatest threat to the Church: liberalism. Cardinal Newman was careful to make the distinction between “liberalism” as it had been understood since the 18th century in its political or philosophical sense — tolerance, the rule of law, human rights, free elections, etc. — and “liberalism” in a theological context, which he defined as “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.”
Cardinal Newman further noted that religion had come to be regarded not as a truth but as “a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.” He stated that the “goodly framework of society, which is the creation of Christianity, is throwing off Christianity,” adding that education is affected when he noted that, “rather than the Truth of Christianity,” there is substituted “a universal and a thoroughly secular education, calculated to bring home to every individual that to be orderly, industrious, and sober, is his personal interest.”
The reader of the Biglietto Speech cannot fail to notice how Cardinal Newman’s concerns are as valid now as they were in the late 19th century. Today, religion, when not overtly threatened, is increasingly relegated to the private sphere, and therefore seen as inappropriate for the public square. In his 2008 book, Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles Chaput describes this as a new variant of anti-Catholicism that is “a kind of background radiation to daily life created by America’s leadership classes: the media, the academy, and political action groups.” He observes the “steady stress on Catholic sins while turning a blind eye to Catholic vitality,” and with great insight concludes that “in reality the new anti-Catholicism often masks a resentment of any faithful Catholic social engagement.”
We see the effects of this daily. Many U.S. senators and congressmen who publically profess their Catholicism consistently support practices — such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and homosexual “marriage” — that are in direct opposition to Church teachings. Catholic institutions — notably hospitals, schools, and universities — that should be bulwarks of Catholicism frequently stand in open opposition to Catholic doctrine. Our public secular culture is rife with the celebration of a misguided “tolerance” and “openness.” At the recently televised Emmy Awards, convicted felon Jack Kevorkian, the champion and practitioner of euthanasia, was applauded. What religious figure — particularly a faithful Catholic one — could be so publically and enthusiastically praised at a secular event in America today?
Many faithful Catholics today understandably become disheartened in the same way that Cardinal Newman might have been. Despite the great honor of being made a cardinal, and his wide circle of friends and admirers, Cardinal Newman had every right to feel dejected, forlorn, and deeply disturbed about the course of Christianity in his society. He was 78 years old, not in particularly good health, and, although he lived for another decade, his most productive years were behind him. He had undergone great trials in his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism and had faced scorn and even ridicule from many people with whom he had been friends. In his waning years, he saw the false notion of “liberalism” in religious matters as apparently victorious, when he observed, “There never was a device of the Enemy so cleverly framed and with such promise of success.”
Yet it is precisely at this point that Cardinal Newman’s Biglietto Speech resonates with us today. For it is not in his criticism of misguided liberalism that forms his central point, but rather his simple declaration that “it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it.” These words, spoken near the conclusion of his Biglietto Speech, offer a profoundly Christian response to all that Cardinal Newman deeply laments, and he underscores this when he added, “I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church.”
Newman’s Biglietto Speech is not about “liberalism” in the Church or lack of faith or the sorry state of affairs of society. It’s about hope and confidence. We need not fear — because, as he proclaims, “Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now.”
Like Cardinal Newman, Catholics today must have hope and faith, despite what we see in our society and culture. We must always remember that the battle has already been won, and what Cardinal Newman told his audience that morning in May 1879 is as true now as it was then, that “what is certain is uncertain, i.e., the mode by which Divine Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance.” And he adds, “Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.”
Cardinal Newman’s final remarks could be interpreted as an invitation to passivity or indolence; but he would most certainly have been the last person to understand his acceptance of divine will and providence as an argument for Christian passivity. More than a quarter-century earlier, he had declared in the opening lecture that became the introduction to The Idea of a University that “we sometimes forget that we please Him best and get the most from Him, when according to the Fable, we ‘put our shoulder to the wheel,’ when we use what we have by nature to the utmost, at the same time we look out for what is beyond nature in the confidence of faith and hope.”
Cardinal Newman’s Christian confidence, faith, and hope are driven home by the final words of his Biglietto Speech, which form a subtle yet unmistakably lucid postscript that hovers around all he had spoken that morning:
Mansueti autem hereditabunt terram,
Et delectabuntur in multitudine pacis.
“But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”
Cardinal Newman’s choice of Psalm 37:11, which presages Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, accentuates his point. In Psalm 35, a just man laments the way he is treated by his impious enemies. Psalm 36 tells us the source of that impiety: They have no fear of the Lord. Finally, Psalm 37 addresses the power and apparent success of the impious: They are evil-doers, yet flourish. But then the psalmist goes on to tell us that it is not the impious in all their apparent power and might who will be victorious, but rather the faithful who are exhorted to be patient and trust the Lord, because the evil-doers will “soon fade like the grass,/and wither like the green herb.” It is a message of God’s love, foreshadowing that of His Son, in whom we find our redemption.
This was as profoundly important a message for the good people who gathered in the Palazzo della Pigna that spring morning in 1879 in Rome, as it is for those who gathered in Crofton Hall in Birmingham, England, this past Sunday, when John Henry Cardinal Newman was declared Blessed. And it is truly a message for all times.